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Tazria: Bad Religious Experiences Part 2

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Dear Rabbi Jacobson,

I carefully read your response to D.A. Both her words and your reply are very well phrased. I commend you for your lucid and sensitive approach. But after finishing the entire exchange I was left with a gnawing feeling that something is missing.

With all due respect, there is another side to the coin. That side is called kabolos ol, naaseh v’nishma – the general acceptance of Torah authority, Daas Torah. The basis of faith is accepting an authority that is beyond you.

By suggesting that uneducated Jews returning to their roots should “own their choices,” and go at their “own pace,” you run the risk of allowing every individual to just follow their heart and not submit to any authority at all – a conclusion I am sure you did not want anyone to reach.

In my opinion, we live today in a time when there is far too little respect for authority. Nothing is sacred. Everyone, including children, declares their “rights” to be autonomous. There is too much permissiveness. What we need is a call for more obedience, not less.

Perhaps you should have suggested to D.A. that she should not be so involved with herself and her needs, and instead learn to serve G-d.

This, I believe, is what her Rabbis were trying to tell her. Not that they know what’s best for her, but that the Torah knows what’s best for her. As such, she should be submitting and surrendering to Daas Torah and the Torah leaders that have the authority to render Torah-based opinions.

Instead, you are encouraging her and others to just follow their own subjective whims, which goes counter and actually undermines the entire power of Torah, the Divine instructions how to live our lives.

Given, some Rabbis are incompetent or untrained to apply Torah in a way that addresses today’s needs and challenges. But is that enough reason to undermine the entire authority of all Rabbis?

Rabbi xxx

Dear Rabbi xxx,

Thank you for writing and for making some very legitimate points. However, as you can imagine, I disagree with you – not about our generation’s lack of reverence, but about who is to blame and what we are to do about it. Above all, your call to D.A. and others to simply submit with obedience to Daas Torah is precisely the crisis I was addressing, and demonstrates how detached you are from the problem. I wonder how much experience you have in this area.

While what some of what you say may be correct on paper, in real life things are far more complex. And the Torah, being a Torah of life and for life, not a book on paper, addresses life in all its complexions.

Some argue that there are actually two schools of thought how to deal with so-called “Baalei Teshuvah.” Let’s call them the “authoritative school” and the “individualistic school,” or the “school of self-abnegation” and the “school of self-actualization.” The former argues that the entire purpose of life is self-abnegation. G-d demands of us to subjugate our own self-interest and will to His Divine will. The latter contends that the purpose of existence is that we not lose our personalities and individuality, but rather that we become instruments of G-d’s will. Yes, we must subjugate ourselves to G-d’s law, but the ultimate goal is not self-abnegation but self-actualization.

A more radical version of the first school suggests that men are basically brutes, and left to their own resources they will gravitate to self-interest and narcissism. Thus, the need to subjugate oneself and one’s desires to the Divine law in the Torah. The only reason, some claim, that we were given our own minds and personalities is a test – in order for us to suppress our individuality and surrender to G-d. The second school is repulsed by this concept and sees it, in effect, as a form of self-annihilation. Why would G-d create us with such unique and beautiful features, only to have us suppress it?! They in turn profess the Divine Image in which we all created. Though we have selfish traits, we are not mere beasts, but Divine souls. And our focus should be not on the inferiority of man, but on the majesty of the Divine spirit within us.

In Chassidic thought both these viewpoints have some legitimacy. The first perspective can be justified by the distance between us mortal creatures and the Immortal Creator. The second perspective is driven by the fact that the Creator shaped the human being in His Divine Image, thus creating a relationship between the human and the Divine, allowing for integration, not just abnegation. But the ultimate objective is the fusion of both perspectives.

Yes, Torah comes to lift us up to a higher plane, and as such we are required to have kabolos ol and subjugate our selves, our desires and interest, through utter bittul, to the Higher Will. To “lose ourselves” in the Divine. But at the same time, Torah was not given in Heaven or for Heaven; it was given on and for Earth. “Torah speaks in the language of man” is not just an issue of language but context. Torah speaks to us as we are on Earth and addresses the full spectrum of our material lives and its real challenges.

This explains an entire slew of Torah laws and idioms that emphasize the importance of applying Torah to the needs and parameters of the people, not just their abnegation.

Just to name a few examples: One should always begin keeping Torah and Mitzvos out of ulterior motives (shelo leshmo), because from these ulterior motives one will come to perform them with pure motive (leshmo) (Pesachim 50b). Educate the child according to his way, so that as he grows old he will not waver from it (Proverbs 22:6). A person should always study where his heart desires (Avodah Zorah 19a). Which is the correct path for man to choose?  Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind (Avot 2:1). A decree should not be issued that the public cannot comply with (Avodah Zorah 36a, Baba Basra 60b). The Torah speaks to pacify the yetzer hora (Kidushin 21b. Sifra, Rashi Kedoshim 19:25). The halachik concept of “compromise” (peshoreh) (Sanhedrin 6b-7a. Rambam Sanhedrin 22:4. Tur and Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 12:2).

These and more such statements underscore how important it is that Torah be applied to the limitations of the human condition; to enhance life, not destroy it. “You shall live by them [Torah edicts],” not die by them.

One could question all these Torah principles, with the seemingly logical argument, as you suggest: Since the Torah presents absolute truth where is their room in an absolute system for relative and subjective, personal applications? How could we give any credibility to “your way,” your “hearts desire?” Truth is true regardless whether the public can accept it or not. Since when does an absolute Torah have to accommodate individual needs?

On a simplistic level, absolute truth and relative application can seem irreconcilable. But when you appreciate the complexity of life, all its nuances, the diversity of people, human subjectivity, and above all, the fact that human nature begins with self-interest – all these features created by the same G-d that gave us the Torah – it becomes quite obvious that the whole point of Torah is that we should use it’s absolute principles to guide us, but guide us in a way that we can contain and grow with, as we slowly acclimate our lives and align ourselves to the Divine will, moving from self-interest to a Higher calling. Up top the point where we can recognize that our self-interest is to live up to our calling.

Not unlike the basic principles of education, in which certain truths have to be conveyed to a child at his/her own level. Is it a compromise of absolute truth if one has to offer a child an incentive (a candy or toy) to study? No less than an analogy compromises a deeper truth that cannot be appreciated without the analogy.

In effect, the commitment to Torah and the embrace of the spiritual path consists of two stages: Acceptance and integration. First there is the need for suspension of self and acceptance of a Higher calling (naaseh). Then one has to integrate and internalize the experience (nishma).

All this is true even in the best of times. Even when Rabbis, teachers and authorities were impeccable role models of selflessness and wisdom, sensitive to the needs of their constituents. How much more so in times when leadership is sorely lacking. Then it becomes absolutely imperative that the commitment to Torah be integrated by the individual, being that we cannot ride on the faith of authorities.

So though we can bemoan today’s lack of submission to Torah authorities and see it as our shortcoming, yet, upon reflection, it may be the other way around; this element of “chutzpah” may also be a blessing in disguise: Because today’s authorities are so lame, G-d made sure that they will not be listened to. “One who has no awe of G-d will not be heeded.” Authorities will be honored in direct proportion to their level of integrity. Undeserving authorities will not garner respect nor obedience.

The same is on a collective level. Perhaps G-d in His Divine benevolence and Providence choreographed it so that in our times – ever since the Holy Temple was destroyed – there is no central Sanhedrin (Rabbinic Supreme Court), which regulates law for the entire nation, lest it be abused. Today each community has its own respective Torah authorities. Recognizing that we are living in a time when “hearts are diminished” and “the awe of G-d” is weaker, a built-in immune system ensures that centralized power will not be abused. “G-d did charity with Israel by dispersing them among the nations.” Why is that charity? Because their dispersion ensures their survival, that they can never be all destroyed all at once.

Today, more than ever, with the breakdown of authority, it is absolutely critical to ensure that each of us “own” our choices; that the path of faith become your path, not someone else’s; that our life choices, though initially driven by all types of influences, ultimately are not driven by superficial reasons to please others.

I would also add: Using your argument for the need of obedience to Torah authority, I would venture to say that if Torah leaders today would demonstrate their own obedience to G-d with the appropriate humility (and not just pull rank as scholars and authorities), I have no doubt that their constituents and students would learn by example and reciprocate. But can we actually expect that an arrogant or insensitive teacher will inspire humility and obedience in his students?

So though there is always a need to accept the truths and authority of Torah, much can be learned from the skeptics and cynics of our time. Though many may go overboard and others may use it as an excuse for their own unwillingness to be accountable, the fact remains that you learn most from your critics. They help illuminate what is wrong with the system, so that we can repair it.

To indiscriminately demand blind obedience from our generation may be appealing to some. However, I am sorry to be the one to rudely remind you, that 1) it won’t work. And 2) It shouldn’t work, because sustainable commitment is only possible when total acceptance is coupled with internalization. And we are all the better for that, because if we were able to secure blind obedience, our systems would never heal. The status quo would continue on, in a self-perpetuating vicious cycle of obedience feeding unhealthy authority and vice versa.

This may be one of the reasons why in the end of days “chutzpa will reign.” Reverence for unholy and corrupt structures only makes them more corrupt. In unhealthy times it is only through irreverence that we can ever hope to create change.

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Dear Reb Simon: I read the past two weekly essays with great interest because they cogently express my own sentiments. Recent condemnation of a shaytel store in Flatbush and the Lipa Shmeltzer concert controversy epitomize the irresponsible statements by pontificating blowhards, who are considered to be leaders and Gedoilim. But if you expose these truths for all to see, the right-wing Yeshivishe community will be sure to excoriate your positions as those of a renegade. I say, to hell with them. Keep doing what you are doing, and educate people one by one and idea by idea, until we are… Read more »

Dovid K

Dear Reb Simon: I read the past two weekly essays with great interest because they cogently express my own sentiments. Recent condemnation of a shaytel store in Flatbush and the Lipa Shmeltzer concert controversy epitomize the irresponsible statements by pontificating blowhards, who are considered to be leaders and Gedoilim. But if you expose these truths for all to see, the right-wing Yeshivishe community will be sure to excoriate your positions as those of a renegade. I say, to hell with them. Keep doing what you are doing, and educate people one by one and idea by idea, until we are… Read more »

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Rabbi Jacobson,
Rabbi xxxs so-called contribution illustrates perfectly the philosophical relationship that exists between his school of Judaism and the Taliban. He does not deserve the title of rabbi though ordained he might be. His authoritarian approach to Judaism is at best destructive insofar that it has alienated untold numbers of Jews from our faith. Needless to say I am stunned and revolted at his writing. Perhaps once I calm down I can delve into your response. I hope it includes a suggestion that Rabbi xxx move to Afghanistan.
Shabbat Shalom,
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CG

Simon,

We spoke a few days ago… just want to wish you a big Yasher Koach on your piece below… I applaud you for your ability to see our community objectively without a typical FFB bias despite that you grew up frum… only someone who has achieved / actualized true selflessness / humility could be able to do that… I just hope that the average reader makes it through the Chassidic content of the first half so s/he can read your objective and accurate assessment of todays Jewish community in the second half.

Have a great Shabbos!
CG

SB

Bravo rabbi for your reply. the question looming in many arenas now is speed of dispersion, absorption of numbers of people that need protection in the form of work that adds up to the demand of protection. the speed of mutations of parameters of being and subsequent off shot of thoughts, actions and behavior is at unprecidented unfolding. But, the structure of many work performances are becoming an anachronism that cannot catch up. The divine effort to throw a punch at suppressing human suffering due to our expansion, are counter parallel. Nothing in mans behavior historiocally and up to the… Read more »

Ted

In my opinion, we live today in a time when there is far too little respect for authority. Nothing is sacred. Everyone, including children, declares their “rights” to be autonomous. There is too much permissiveness. What we need is a call for more obedience, not less.(My response:Though raised as a Presbyterian, now 89 years of age, I find myself at a loss to accept the continuing failure of those of various faiths to assemble what might be referred to as The doctrine of humanity, and accept as right and appropriate that it be dynamic. A Core Curriculum, i.e., Rules and… Read more »

S.A

i read both articles of Religious Experience, and I never felt so glad that Im not the only one wondering around thinking that our community is amazing, but that the flaws of the system makes it unbearable sometimes. I identified with everyhting you wrote, and I appreaciate the fact that there are rabbis like you that understand people like me. I feel in much happiness, and know I feel that I can have the strenght to keep on going into religion, in order to find my purpose here.

Thank you vey much

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